Hurricae Floyd had ot officially reached Washigto, D.C., that Wedesday i September, but it was certaily raiig o Rep. Erest Istook's parade. More precisely, it raied o his reitroductio of the iaccurately labeled "Religious Freedom Amedmet."

Istook had aouced plas to have te gospel choirs joi him o the west steps of the U.S. Capitol to prime the media for this Cogress' cosideratio of the costitutioal amedmet, which had bee defeated just last year by a 224 to 206 vote (a majority but ot the two-thirds it eeded).

The series of cloudbursts o Sept. 15 had Istook scramblig for a alterate veue for his mid-afteroo evet. The first aoucemet was that the rally would stay o the steps, the it was to be held i a House aex behid the regular House office buildigs. It was fially shifted over 10 blocks away to the Bible Way Church.

Ad after all the chages, the press corps was bewildered. The itroductio of most legislatio is't exactly "stop the presses" cotet, uless it is somethig really ew or particularly quirky. But whe you make it more difficult for reporters to fid you, you ca pretty much chalk up a itroductio as a lost cause.

Americas Uited had heard of Istook's plas two days earlier ad had alerted all the members of the Coalitio to Preserve Religious Liberty. The Coalitio, alog with its chief House leader, Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, had dutifully scheduled a press coferece outside the Capitol a hour before Istook's festivities. As kee watchers of the Weather Chael, we had the additioal foresight to get a earby idoor locatio as well. The press had quotes ad "soudbites" i the ca from our side before they eve bega to scramble to catch up with Istook's waderig mistrels.

The oly reaso ay press maaged to show up at the church was that Istook had corralled both Majority Whip Tom DeLay ad Majority Leader Dick Armey to speak about his amedmet as well. The emcee for the whole evet was Bill Murray, the so of atheist leader Madaly Murray O'Hair, who aouced several years ago that he had coverted to Christiaity ad would sped his time tryig to restore the "damage" doe by the Supreme Court i its prayer decisios i the early 1960s.

My ow slightly waterlogged body showed up at the church close to the start of the speeches. The pews were filled with people who had bee bussed i from ew York City, almost all of whom were supporters of fired school teacher Mildred Rosario, who had tried to covert her studets i what become a uproar last year. This was a highly spirited crowd, may of whom had made had-paited sigs to wave aroud proclaimig such setimets as "Get Gus Out of Our Schools" ad "Keep Drugs From Our Childre."

They gave thuderous approval to all the commets of speakers icludig a ew Mexico woma who did a mid-umbig recital of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which moved from traditioal ursery rhyme to doggerel poetry as it made the belabored poit that the "Lamb of God" had bee barred from school alog with Mary's wooly pet.

The commets of Rep. DeLay were particularly lurid as he aouced that "o prayer ca be uttered i America's schools." This is so ridiculous that I told the Religio ews Service that it was a "outright lie."

Iroically, that very day a estimated two millio Christia schoolchildre aroud the coutry had participated i a studet-sposored prayer program called "Rally Roud the Pole" (where school officials are ot supposed to be participats). Of course, DeLay also igored the iumerable daily private prayers childre decide to express whe they choose to do so ad the 10,000 or more Bible clubs i America's secodary schools.

It is a good thig that I do't fall asleep i church because I might have missed the best part of Mr. Istook's ow address. He solemly itoed i his best former broadcaster's voice that a actual "represetative of oe of the groups that files these lawsuits agaist prayers" was right here "i this room." He glowered i my directio.

I half-expected, followig the lead of the "Mary's Little Lamb" recitatio, he would poit me out like the Baby Bear did i "Goldilocks" sayig "ad she is still right here." I walked over to Istook o his way out the door ad said he should feel free to use my ame i future speeches.

There was somethig very sad about this whole proceedig. I'm sure may of the people i the pews had ever heard aybody tell them about the dazzlig array of religious activities that are permitted i schools ad other public spaces. They had ot bee told the differece betwee govermet-sposored ad promoted prayer ad geuiely studet-iitiated private religio expressio.

I wished that Rep. Istook had said, "Barry Ly, come up here ad explai yourself." I could have doe that. I could have said that the best thig our govermet ca do for ay spiritual life we choose is to leave it aloe. I could have said that if Cogress spet more time workig to stop violece ad less time potificatig about religio, it might be savig some lives. I guaratee you that framig it that way would have gotte a few hads clappig my way.

Barry W. Ly is executive director of Americas Uited for Separatio of Church ad State.